Tin Man Games has carved a niche for itself in the digital gamebook market, with their original 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd series and the popular Fighting Fantasy series by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (WFM) is no stranger to the list as a 1982 paperback by the two aforementioned legends. After a successful Kickstarter that almost quadrupled their $15,000 goal for better artwork for environments and characters, WFM is now available on Steam and coming soon for smart phones and tablets. While I’ve never played the original paperback on tabletop, it’s clear WFM aims to be more than a nostalgia trip.
At the onset, Oriana, the “dungeon master,” greets the player and provides a quick rundown of the game flow. Up to four characters are initially available for selection, with eight more unlockable and another four more to come, each with their own unique backstory for why they seek to enter Firetop Mountain. Thus, it naturally follows that their goals take them through different paths up the mountain, but each culminates in the same final location.
While it’s neat to see the branching choices at the beginning of the game, there is a clear midpoint that all characters are corralled through before wandering to the final maze. Some routes are quicker, some more treacherous, and some more elucidating, but for the most part enough overlaps exist to enable the player to plot more effective routes.
Wandering the mountain paths, players can choose their reactions to situations and crossroads. With no rewind feature, however, it would be wise to decide carefully. Certain choices result in testing your Luck or Skill stats, which amounts to rolling two dice to see if you get your equivalent stat number or lower. Thus, the higher your stat is, the higher your chance of succeeding. Dice rolls seemed favorable towards the player for the most part, but I had one unlucky run with a character where he basically missed every single stat check, resulting in a very quick death.
Musically, WFM is definitely atmospheric. While there are no ear worms in the tunes, they are all well composed and suit the location the character is in. Particularly, there’s a room full of partying orcs full of appropriate drunken singing and festive music that conjures an image the static pieces could not. Appropriate sound effects are sprinkled throughout the adventure, though there is no voice acting at all.
As you walk towards a new section, the pieces of the landscape fall a la Bastion. Aesthetically, WFM looks and feels a lot like a pop up Dungeons and Dragons adventure, which, if this is what Tin Man Games is going for, they certainly nailed it. Every character, NPC, and enemy has their own standees, and some even take up multiple spots on the battlefield. Your character piece totter-hops the hallways to a new spot as if an invisible hand was moving it.
At each spot on the map, directional options pop up on the screen. After clicking on a choice, scroll text appears in the middle of the screen, giving some exposition on the situation and any number of event choices. Occasionally, a sketch may accompany the text, and players can click on them to toggle between colored and grayscale versions. Sometimes, particular event choices are only available if you have acquired a specific item during your journey, and the game provides the item name but not how to attain it, which is a nice touch for encouraging players to explore other options. Though I like the old-timey stain of the paper and how the text scrolls up, I found the loading time somewhat delayed, especially when large expositions of text occur, which has resulted in my misclicking of options at times while in a hurry to get already seen text over with.
Many interactions result in or give you the option to engage in combat. Battles are turn-based affairs where both sides pick their next action (move or attack) and then they are simultaneously executed. Thus, movement could be blocked by a bigger tabletop piece, or quick attacks and dodges could result in a missed attack. Each character has a unique combination of attacks that fit their expected playstyle: the Warrior has close combat area of effect attacks, while the Rogue has a quick ranged attack. Should an enemy and a character attack each other, a clash ensues, where the result of two rolled dice is added to one’s skill stat and then compared. Whoever has the higher number wins the clash and deals damage. Thus, the game rewards players who can weave around predicted attacks rather than facing them head on, and I found the combat mechanics extremely fun for certain characters that fit my playstyle. However, more than a couple times, the visual of the dice rolling in clashes failed to show up for me, leaving me completely in the dark as to how the process happened, though the result occurred regardless. Although this ultimately did not affect the combat outcome, it took a little away from the experience.
Almost every enemy type encountered has a unique move and attack pattern that can be learned, and aside from the early game, you pretty much face a new enemy type every combat phase. While it’s possible to exit combat unscathed by remembering patterns, the sheer number of enemies to recall alongside randomized battle configurations complicates this process, and there are times where damage is simply inevitable. After slaying creatures, you collect their souls, which can be used to unlock other characters.
As you stumble around corridors, certain spots have benches that provide a resting and save point. If you have provisions, you may spend one to heal 10 stamina points; otherwise, you simply heal five instead. Aside from one, characters have anywhere between 17 and 21 health and five provisions, which can be eaten at any point outside of combat to regain four stamina points. If you can scrounge up enough gold by mid game, more provisions or special potions can be purchased, but it’s difficult to do so without taking some considerable risks. Should your character perish during a journey, they can be revived up to three times from their last save point, which, while this is no rewind mechanic, it’s at least something.
In the initial section of the mountain, the benches are quite plentiful, and after a few replays, one may not even bother to hit them all. However, by the mid point and further, the benches become so scarce it almost makes exploring a new spot terrifying as more frequent combat events and tougher enemies appear. Furthermore, some failed Luck and Skill stat tests can result in health loss even if no combat occurs. Particularly, in the final maze, with the layout randomized each time and no clues as to what your next step will bring, I felt as if I had no control over what would happen, nor could I do anything to minimize the damage taken at some points. Since it’s harder to flawlessly beat enemies to death the first time you encounter them, taking some damage is almost expected. Compounded with the difficulty in regaining health and saving after the mid-game point, it seemed increasingly frustrating to proceed further.
I found the initial replayability of WFM fun; it was neat to see what the characters’ stories were, the different routes they would tunnel towards, and figuring out how I could optimize a path. However, once I got the mid game, WFM started losing its charm as I frequently had to replay a huge chunk as my character died, and agonized over choosing the route I already knew or trying something new and hoping it would go better and not worse than before. Then, I hit the final maze area and basically threw my hands up in frustration: not only did I have minimal health to work with, there was nary a bench in sight. And, in my rush to move forward, I also misclicked on not using provisions when I had them available on my last run, and perhaps that extra five health would have mattered significantly, but I will never find out — I never finished the final area. Even though I played everything carefully up until that point and had an awesome run, all it took was one misclick to make the final area unbearable.
What irks me the most is this: if the game had more save points, it would be a much more enjoyable experience. I can even overlook the fact that event options only rarely differ between characters when they take the same path, which was a feature I really liked but quickly felt disappointed at how infrequently it occurred. The fact that there is so little room to make mistakes and take the path less traveled in lieu of the optimized, least damage taken/most items gained route to the top, it almost seems like the game can’t decide what it wants to be: one that focuses on exploration and branching paths, or one that relies on repetition to optimize. If I knew that even if I took a chance on something and it ended poorly, I wouldn’t need to retrace fifteen minutes worth of choices reading the same things and fighting the same creatures over again, the game would have significantly more satisfying replayability. Now, it just feels like grinding.
Overall, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain certainly has its unique charm—I was captivated for a good amount of time until things started to crash and burn near the end. I have no doubt a demographic exists for those who enjoy exploring and don’t mind repeating paths to eke out the best way, but I can’t help but feel that the game could be so much better if it had chosen to focus more on one thing rather than both. Perhaps I’m a little too spoiled by Sorcery!, but if WFM had a rewind feature, or even just more save points, I would have stuck around for much longer.